When she was done with her story, she glanced up at him as he still pushed the swing. He was staring down at her with a gaze that confused her but made her heart jump.
“I know men don’t care for love stories,” she smiled, “but it’s the meaning of that mask and my own.”
“I appreciate any story that’s interesting and wise,” he replied. “I think yours is charming. I would like to hear more.”
She watched him as he spoke in a soft, deep tone. Although she could only see the bottom half of his ivory face, she knew he must be handsome. Even if he had an ugly scar that covered the top half, everything she had sensed about him was as beautiful as the butterfly in her fairy tale.
Remembering he was a stranger and she was late getting home, she quickly cleared her throat and stood up from the swing.
“I have to go,” she said nervously. “My father will be worried.”
“Are you promised to anyone?” he asked abruptly, his desire imprisoning his heart.
Her eyes grew large beneath the crane mask, and she was momentarily speechless.
“No,” she finally answered, amazed she allowed any answer to fall so freely from her lips. “My mother made my father promise that he would never force me to marry. My husband would be my choice.”
As she thought of the words she shared, she sat beside him once again.
He watched as she looked at her feet and kicked at the soft ground. He watched her fair cheeks closely, sure he had seen a tear fall. When another escaped from beneath the mask and rested on her chin, he gently brushed it away with the back of his fingers.
“Why are you sad, sweet girl?” he asked tenderly, regretting having said something that made her cry.
The feel of his hand against her skin made her stomach flutter and her heart pound. She could feel the heat rising across her face and followed her heart’s need to answer.
“I think I’ll be alone for the rest of my life,” she said quietly, barely above a whisper.
“Why would such a kind hearted girl think such a lonely thing?” he wanted to know.
He glanced around again to be sure they were still alone. If she continued crying and speaking with such anguish in her voice, he would feel compelled to break the social rules and comfort her in his arms.
“I think I expect too much from reality,” she answered, brushing away more tears before he saw.
She liked how he made her feel when he cared for her, but he was a stranger. It was inappropriate.
“I create these silly stories of love that I know are rare,” she explained. “My parents loved each other and were loyal to each other, but I think their love was probably uncommon.”
He watched her wipe away tears as they continued to fall one after the other.
“I never cared about marriage,” he replied, “whether I would be forced to marry or if I found someone on my own, but now…”
She looked up at him as both of his hands held onto the ropes of the swing once again, his right arm against her back nestling her closely to him.
“Now?” she echoed quietly.
He brought his face closer to hers to look into her shadowed eyes.
“Now…” he whispered, placing his hand behind her head, “I only want you.”
She didn’t have time to reply as his lips pressed softly against hers. A thousand doubts and fears raced through her mind as his lips came near hers, but only the one that made her accept his kiss won. The world seemed to vanish around them. There was no sound and no cold wind blowing through the trees. In that moment, only they existed.
He felt her soften beneath him and lean into his chest, her hands holding onto him for support. He deepened his kiss and gently wrapped his other arm around her to hold her close.
She never imagined her first kiss would be so sweet. She thought it would be awkward or dull since she had no idea how it was done. In his arms, however, she felt it was the most natural thing, especially with him guiding her so tenderly. When he started to pull away, she tightened her grip on his robe. She didn’t want him to let her go.
He felt her resist him as he tried to end their kiss. He was about to let her pull him back, but she suddenly pushed him away and jumped up from the swing.
“Oh no!” she exclaimed. “My brothers!”
“Brothers?” he wondered and he stood with her, still in a daze from their kiss.
She seemed to recover well, something he was sure was due to being caught by an overprotective brother – let alone two. Weren’t they supposed to be miles away?
“I hear them calling for me,” she answered fearfully. Had they seen her first kiss? “They must have returned home. I have to go!”
She started to run toward the voices, but he grabbed her hand to stop her.
“I will find you,” he promised. “I will find you and I will marry you. Wait for me.”
She wanted to stay with him and tell him everything about her, but the sound of her brother urgently calling her name shook her back to her senses. She squeezed his hand before pulling away. She smiled and nodded at him with an unspoken promise before running toward the entrance of the garden.
He watched her white robes billow behind her in the moonlight and called out to her his promise, “I will find you and marry you!”
His obsession with her was set deeply into his soul, and he would never give up his search.
He walked quickly to find his companions and saw her meet two men on the main road. They hugged her and scolded her before taking her hands and walking away. She looked back at him once and smiled before they disappeared among the crowd.
His brother and friend hurried to him as they saw him leaving the path.
“What happened?” his friend asked.
He watched the crowd carefully until he could no longer see her.
“Did you hear her name?” he asked the men. “Her brothers were calling to her just now. Did you hear it?”
The men shook their heads.
“I didn’t pay attention,” his brother admitted. “What happened?”
“Her brothers came for her,” he answered. “She ran to join them before I could find out who she is.” She had just gone but his heart was already aching. “She will be my wife,” he told them bluntly. “I’ll search everywhere until I find out who she is and marry her.”
“And the marriage contract?” asked his brother. Their father was going to have him beaten for allowing this to happen.
“I won’t honor it,” he said in a serious tone.
“Father won’t like it,” his brother said. “You know we need this alliance.”
“We can find another way,” he answered as he hurried toward the inn at the edge of town. “I will never marry anyone but my little crane.”
The brother and friend only shared bewildered glances before following closely behind.